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Technology Untangled: Regain some Internet privacy and anonymity

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technology-bourThe issue of online privacy, or rather the lack thereof, seems to be in the news almost every day. The depth and scope of the NSA surveillance scandal continues to be revealed in the headlines on a regular basis. Along with government snooping, retailers trying to sell you something are always looking for ways to gather data about you so they can sell you even more stuff, Google being one of the worst offenders.

While no one should operate under the illusion that total Internet privacy is obtainable, there are at least a few things you can do to keep from being a complete open book when using the Internet. Today’s article looks at several software solutions and one hardware device to help improve your privacy.

The first and easiest defense is don’t use Google as your Internet search tool. Google retains a massive database of every search everyone performs, including the computer address (IP address) of the computer that performed the search. It also leaves behind retrievable history information (tracking cookies) on your computer about, for example, what you may be shopping for online. It helps them to target popup ads and work toward selling you more. While the main purpose of this database is for use by marketers, others such as government entities, criminals and hackers have ways to gain access to this search data, which can reveal a surprising amount of information about you.

For safer searching, use an anonymous, non-tracking search engine like Startpage. Startpage actually uses the Google search database, but performs the searches for you. This places your computer once removed from the process. But be aware that after you click on a search result, an individual Web page can connect with your computer and personal information could be passed on. To prevent this, you can use the proxy service feature. In this mode, Startpage goes to the website you select, retrieves the page and displays it for you. The chosen website sees only the Startpage IP address, not yours. The response is a bit slower, and some website features may not function, but this method is more anonymous. For more detailed information, go to startpage.com and click on the About tab.

For continuous Web browsing without working through a search engine, you can try the free Tor Browser. The Tor Browser insulates your IP address from the browsing process by bouncing your communications through a series of intermediate computers and IP addresses both on the way out of and back in to your computer. The communications path is ever changing. This process prevents people from learning your location or browsing habits. The computers used for the bouncing are hosted by Tor volunteers who are big privacy advocates. Their nonprofit Tor project is dedicated to the research, development and education of online anonymity and privacy. According to the Tor website (torproject.org), the system was originally developed for the U.S Navy for the protection of government communications. Today it is used by the military, law enforcement officers, activists and regular citizens.

You can download the browser bundle at https://www.torproject.org/projects/torbrowser.html.en.

Note that Tor does not eliminate your existing Web browser software; it simply provides an additional browser choice besides Internet Explorer, Firefox or Chrome. Simply deploying Tor is not all you will need to browse anonymously. Tor advises that you will need to change some of your browsing habits to get the best effect with it. So read the list of warnings and instructions that come with the installation package. For example, Tor blocks some website features that could be used for data mining. This includes plugins such as Flash Player that often are used for YouTube videos.

If loading such software exceeds your comfort level, there is a similar hardware solution. Safeplug is a $49 black box that connects to your Internet router and shields your IP address from the outside world. According to the Safeplug website (pogoplug.com/safeplug), Safeplug sets up in 60 seconds and allows you to use your existing Web browser to surf the Internet with complete anonymity and peace of mind. After connecting to your router, you simply go online and register your device to begin safer browsing. There is no continuing subscription fee.

As I conducted my research on how the Safeplug device works, I was surprised to find that Safeplug actually uses the Tor network to secure your Internet connection. With that being the case, I do not see a big advantage with paying to use this device when you can download Tor itself for free. I suppose there is a small benefit to being able to use your existing browser interface, and perhaps there is some degree of technical support that comes with the Safeplug hardware. In addition, Tor can be a bit of a pain to set up and fine-tune while Safeplug does it all automatically. Plus, Safeplug provides a built-in ad blocker. The choice is yours.

While none of today’s suggestions are bulletproof methods to regain full anonymity on the Internet, at least they can help you gain back some small degree of privacy.•

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Stephen Bour (bourtech@iquest.net) is an engineer and legal technology consultant in Indianapolis. His company, the Alliance for Litigation Support Inc., includes Bour Technical Services and Alliance Court Reporting. Areas of service include legal videography, tape analysis, document scanning to CD and courtroom presentation support. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author.

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  1. So that none are misinformed by my posting wihtout a non de plume here, please allow me to state that I am NOT an Indiana licensed attorney, although I am an Indiana resident approved to practice law and represent clients in Indiana's fed court of Nth Dist and before the 7th circuit. I remain licensed in KS, since 1996, no discipline. This must be clarified since the IN court records will reveal that I did sit for and pass the Indiana bar last February. Yet be not confused by the fact that I was so allowed to be tested .... I am not, to be clear in the service of my duty to be absolutely candid about this, I AM NOT a member of the Indiana bar, and might never be so licensed given my unrepented from errors of thought documented in this opinion, at fn2, which likely supports Mr Smith's initial post in this thread: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-7th-circuit/1592921.html

  2. When I served the State of Kansas as Deputy AG over Consumer Protection & Antitrust for four years, supervising 20 special agents and assistant attorneys general (back before the IBLE denied me the right to practice law in Indiana for not having the right stuff and pretty much crushed my legal career) we had a saying around the office: Resist the lure of the ring!!! It was a take off on Tolkiem, the idea that absolute power (I signed investigative subpoenas as a judge would in many other contexts, no need to show probable cause)could corrupt absolutely. We feared that we would overreach constitutional limits if not reminded, over and over, to be mindful to not do so. Our approach in so challenging one another was Madisonian, as the following quotes from the Father of our Constitution reveal: The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse. We are right to take alarm at the first experiment upon our liberties. I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations. Liberty may be endangered by the abuse of liberty, but also by the abuse of power. All men having power ought to be mistrusted. -- James Madison, Federalist Papers and other sources: http://www.constitution.org/jm/jm_quotes.htm RESIST THE LURE OF THE RING ALL YE WITH POLITICAL OR JUDICIAL POWER!

  3. My dear Mr Smith, I respect your opinions and much enjoy your posts here. We do differ on our view of the benefits and viability of the American Experiment in Ordered Liberty. While I do agree that it could be better, and that your points in criticism are well taken, Utopia does indeed mean nowhere. I think Madison, Jefferson, Adams and company got it about as good as it gets in a fallen post-Enlightenment social order. That said, a constitution only protects the citizens if it is followed. We currently have a bevy of public officials and judicial agents who believe that their subjectivism, their personal ideology, their elitist fears and concerns and cause celebs trump the constitutions of our forefathers. This is most troubling. More to follow in the next post on that subject.

  4. Yep I am not Bryan Brown. Bryan you appear to be a bigger believer in the Constitution than I am. Were I still a big believer then I might be using my real name like you. Personally, I am no longer a fan of secularism. I favor the confessional state. In religious mattes, it seems to me that social diversity is chaos and conflict, while uniformity is order and peace.... secularism has been imposed by America on other nations now by force and that has not exactly worked out very well.... I think the American historical experiment with disestablishmentarianism is withering on the vine before our eyes..... Since I do not know if that is OK for an officially licensed lawyer to say, I keep the nom de plume.

  5. I am compelled to announce that I am not posting under any Smith monikers here. That said, the post below does have a certain ring to it that sounds familiar to me: http://www.catholicnewworld.com/cnwonline/2014/0907/cardinal.aspx

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